I could not be prouder of my Toronto Maple Leafs than I am right now. I, like everyone else, wanted to see them move on, and yes, I'm disappointed and upset at their Game 7 collapse. Still, that doesn't change that the Leafs did much and more this year.
At the end of last season, the Leafs were one of the worst teams in the league. People were demanding big moves, but Brian Burke knew this team was capable.
The only moves he made involved bringing in James Van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement and Leo Komarov. He also elected to stick with a James Reimer/Ben Scrivens tandem in net. These minor moves yielded big results. On top of that, Burke made a minor trade at last season's deadline for Mark Fraser, who led the team in plus-minus this season.
The Leafs proved everyone wrong, finishing fourth in the conference and ninth in the league: big improvements for a young, inexperienced team that stayed relatively the same. Damien Cox of the Toronto Sun wrote an article saying this was one of the worst playoff collapses in history and detrimental to the Leafs organization.
He is 100 percent wrong.
This season was never about the Leafs winning it all—it was about them making the playoffs. They did that, end of story. When they were matched up against the Boston Bruins, they weren't supposed to have a chance. They forced an overtime Game 7.
Boston didn't win because the Leafs collapsed. They won because they're champions. This will never be viewed as an upset victory for Boston that the Leafs gave away. It will be seen as Boston narrowly avoiding one of the worst playoff collapses in its hockey history.
Now we look ahead to next season and the big moments ahead this offseason. I fully believe the Leafs will be a much better team next year.
If there had been no season this year, the Leafs would have had one of the best chances to get the first overall pick. They more than likely would have gotten another top-five pick in a deep, top-heavy draft. Instead, they had a successful season, showed they have a team that can compete and gained valuable experience along the way.
I'll take that over a potential top-five pick any day, especially in a deep draft like this one.
As it looks right now, the Leafs could be picking anywhere from 17th to 23rd overall. There are a lot of quality players whom the Leafs might be able to draft if they trade up, but I'll just focus on the players around where they will draft. Below are five players the Leafs should consider taking if still available.
Max Domi, London Knights, projected 16th overall by the Scouting Report
Ideally, I would love to see the Leafs draft Max Domi, son of Maple Leafs fan favorite Tie Domi. Drafting Domi would not only be a great symbolic move but a great move overall. He is considered a highly skilled player and is one of the most talented offensive players in the draft. Unfortunately, his play in the playoffs will likely have him drafted higher.
Zachary Fucale, Halifax Mooseheads, projected 19th overall by the Scouting Report
Yes, the Leafs have James Reimer, and yes, I believe he's the guy of the future, but when a team has the chance to draft a player like Fucale so late in the first round, it has to take it. The only reason he potentially goes so late is because of the talent level this year. If a team like the New Jersey Devils doesn't jump on him first, he's the guy they should draft.
Curtis Lazar, Edmonton Oil Kings, projected 20th overall by the Scouting Report
Curtis Lazar is a solid player offensively and defensively who can be relied upon to play a multitude of roles from a shutdown center to an offensive catalyst. He is capable of being a second or third-line center in the NHL.
Anthony Mantha, Val D'Or Foreurs, projected 17th overall by the Scouting Report
Mantha is a big player who can dominate games and possesses a great offensive skill set. He has high potential and could be a great pickup for the Leafs, bringing more size to their lineup.
Morgan Klimchuk, Regina Pats, projected 24th overall by the Scouting Report
Klimchuk is one of the fastest players in the draft this year and can use it to create offense on his own. He has a high level of competitiveness and is an effective player in all three zones and in the corners. He will more than likely be available when the Leafs pick and would be a solid option.
Unrestricted Free Agents: Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, Colton Orr, Ryan Hamilton, Ryan O'Byrne and Mike Kostka
Restricted Free Agents: Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Leo Komarov, Frazer McLaren, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and Mark Fraser
Available Cap Space: $19.5 million
It's apparent that this will be a big offseason for Dave Nonis and staff. The issue isn't just figuring out whom to re-sign, it's making sure there's enough available space to sign guys like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Nikolai Kulemin, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer after next season. This is how I see the Leafs signing their more important players while keeping some open cap space for trades and free agency:
Nazem Kadri - two years for $5.5 million, $2.75 million/season
Tyler Bozak - three years for $9.75 million, $3.25 million/season
Ryan Hamilton - two years for $2 million, $1 million/season (two-way contract, will start in AHL)
Leo Komarov - two years for $3 million, $1.5 million/season
Cody Franson - four years for $16 million, $4 million/season
Mark Fraser - two years for $3 million, $1.5 million/season
Frazer McLaren - two years for $1.5 million, $750,000/season
Joe Colborne - two years for $2.5 million, $1.25 million/season (two-way contract, will start in AHL)
Total Available Cap: $5.75 million
Kadri had a great year, but that alone won't get him a huge new contract.
Bozak has showed that he can be an effective two-way player but should not be signed for more than $3.5 million.
Hamilton is a great depth player and should be kept around.
Komarov has earned a new contract but will still see mainly fourth-line duties.
Franson is in for a big pay raise, which might go as high as $4.5 million a season, but that should be easily managed.
Fraser is another player who earned his keep and should be re-signed.
McLaren will be a suitable fourth-line player or extra forward.
Colborne still has a few things to work on but showed signs that he can play.
I'm a big fan of Clarke MacArthur and will be sad to see him go. I wish the Leafs were able to capitalize on his value while they could, but it wasn't meant to be. He will likely be seeking $2-3 million next year, but Toronto needs that money for veteran players.
The same can be said for Orr, O'Byrne and Kostka. They all did well with the Leafs but are just victims of circumstances.
Carl Gunnarsson is a different story. He's a restricted free agent and someone the Leafs can move for other assets. Toronto's primary needs are one or two veteran players to add to their bottom six, a veteran top-four defenseman to play with Phaneuf and a veteran backup goaltender. Gunnarsson is not a player capable of 20-25 minutes a night. He has been overplayed,and the Leafs should try to move him.
As mentioned in the previous slides, Toronto needs to make these acquisitions this offseason: one or two veteran players for the second and third lines, one veteran top-four defenseman and a veteran backup goaltender. The Leafs can fill these positions through free agency, but odds are they won't get all the pieces that way.
Veteran Second or Third-Line Player
The first thing on Toronto's radar heading into free agency should be a veteran player with playoff experience to play on the second or third line. Current free agents who fit that mold include Brenden Morrow, Ryane Clowe, David Clarkson, Pascal Dupuis, Nathan Horton, Dustin Penner, Daniel Cleary and Michael Ryder. Signing any one of these players will add more playoff experience and leadership to this roster.
It will also likely cost at least $3 million a season, but that would be money well spent.
Toronto needs a top-four defenseman with playoff experience who can line up with Phaneuf. Free agents who could fit the bill include Andrew Ference, Rob Scuderi and Robyn Regehr. All are reliable stay-at-home defensemen who can help give Phaneuf some support on the ice. They have all made Stanley Cup runs and can help mentor this young Maple Leafs team.
Toronto will likely fill this position via a trade. Ference and Scuderi will likely be re-signed by the Bruins and Kings, respectively, and Regehr will command a lot on the open market. I can see Toronto offering a player like Gunnarsson and a pick for a veteran guy.
Veteran Backup Goaltender
A veteran goaltender is the one thing that Brian Burke was looking for but would not overpay. A few good veteran goaltenders are available who can help mentor James Reimer while serving as a capable backup. Niklas Backstrom, Nikolai Khabibulin, Evgeni Nabokov, Chris Mason, Mathieu Garon and Jose Theodore are all free agents who would be perfect.
Toronto should look to sign a free-agent goalie, but if that's not possible, it should not overpay through trades.
The Leafs have a few players coming up with the Marlies who can be impact players will the Leafs down the road. Joe Colborne, Carter Ashton, Greg McKegg, Jerry D'Amigo, Brad Ross, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy, Korbinian Holzer and Morgan Rielly are all making big strides. They will start competing for roster spots and earning spot duties with the Leafs.
Of all the forwards, Colborne is the most likely to contend for a roster spot with the Leafs next season. I see him starting out the season with the Marlies again, where he can hopefully dominate.
Ashton had an off year, but an offseason of training could see that change next year. McKegg and D'Amigo have played well this season and are doing well in the playoffs. Expect to see them makes some positives strides this offseason. Ross is still a little rough and will start with the Marlies next year, but he will be an effective player soon enough.
On defense, Holzer will push for a roster spot, while Rielly has the same potential depending on his offseason.
Percy and Blacker will be staples on the back end for the Marlies next season, with Blacker potentially seeing some call-ups.
Also, let's not forget that the Marlies still have Mike Komisarek to deal with. He will be back with them next season.
In net, I would like to see Ben Scrivens sent back down to the Marlies. The only reason he made the Leafs roster this season is because he technically was No. 2 on the depth chart. If the Leafs acquire a veteran goalie, Scrivens will be starting in net for the Marlies next year.
The Marlies also have guys like Jussi Rynnas, Mark Owuya and Garret Sparks, who will all compete for the starting position next year.
I see the Leafs 2013-2014 lineup being similar to this season's with a few small changes. The key for Dave Nonis and staff this offseason will be adding more veteran players throughout the lineup. The Maple Leafs have a good core group to build around now, and I see their roster looking like this next season:
Van Riemsdyk - Kadri - Kessel
Lupul - Grabovski - Veteran Pickup
Kulemin - Bozak - Frattin
Komarov - McClement - Hamilton/Orr/Veteran Pickup
Phaneuf - Veteran Pickup
Franson - Gardiner
Fraser - Liles/Rielly
The best thing for the Leafs in my opinion is to add veteran players and allow some of the younger players to take another year to develop. Guys like Colborne, Ashton, Rielly and Blacker could make a push for a roster spot next season, but I think it would be better for them to develop a little longer. Let the young players on the Leafs roster gain a little more experience before bringing in any more.
I made the exception for Liles because he is far too inconsistent.
If Rielly shows enough improvement, then he deserves a shot. I also left Gunnarsson out, so the Leafs will have Liles and Gunnarsson as trade bait, if needed.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are in good hands. As painful as their loss to the Bruins was, they can grow from the experience. They know how badly it hurts losing in a Game 7. This was a big learning experience for them and gives them an opportunity to be even better next year.